Destiny and Character

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Sermon preached at St Pancras on Sunday 16 September

Today’s readings from Isaiah and Mark are about destiny. The passage from Isaiah is one of the Servant Songs. These foretold the coming of a Messiah to lead the nations, who would suffer, but in the end be rewarded. You’ll recognise some of the other servant songs from Isaiah, because much of the first part of Handel’s Messiah sets them to music: how beautiful are the feet, he was despis’ed, surely he has borne our griefs, all we like sheep.

The striking bell in the St Pancras clock is broken at the moment. After the quarters chime, there is now an expectant pause… For years the Jews had been stuck in this pause, waiting for their Messiah. Then one day, Jesus stood up in the Synagogue and read this passage from Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ The reading from Mark develops this privately with the disciples: ‘who do people say that I am?’, and he warns them, that being the Messiah will mean rejection, suffering and death. He also mentions resurrection, but perhaps they don’t quite hear this bit, because Peter rebukes him about being so gloomy. Jesus then tells the crowd that discipleship means they have to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. I imagine at that point he lost quite a lot of the crowd.

Hearing those words again today, what’s your response to them? Do you feel that you’re doing that, or not? I imagine it’s sometimes quite hard to tell. Jesus not only had Isaiah to tell him his destiny, he had a hotline to God. Not so with us, who have to make guesses, and just hope to high heaven that we’re picking not only the right cross, but setting off in the right direction.

So what can we do meanwhile, to stay faithful even if we’re not always clear what God’s plan for us is? The very reason this church is here is to help us with that. It was built to be a visible reminder of our faith, and decorated with our stories. Inside it, week by week, we hear again the Good News, and we worship, pray, and reflect about it, in the context of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Our churches, like the Eucharist, are living memorials. But so are you. As St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians asks: ‘Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? … The temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.’ But how you embody that in your behaviour is as important as the beauty of your thoughts, because it’s your behaviour and not your thoughts that are public. And we pray this every week at the end of the service, when we say ‘through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.’

Nick Spencer at Theos the think tank has recently coined a very useful expression for what we do, when we ‘go out’ in this way. He calls it Social Liturgy. He defines it as: ‘the practice of public commitment to the other that is explicitly rooted in and shaped by love of God.’ And he came up with this expression to explain a curious phenomenon: just as formal Church attendance seems to be declining, Christian activity in terms of social outreach seems to be increasing. In England, over 10 million people are now using the church for social services like mother and toddler groups, youth groups, foodbanks, community events, relationship support, financial education and access to the internet. To structure this activity, there are 15,000 more faith-based charities today than there were in 2006, with more faith-based charities than secular ones registering each year. All of this activity is ‘social’ because it’s charitable public action; and ‘liturgy’ because it’s generous service directed towards both the ‘human other’ and towards the divine. Our so-called service users recognise it as somehow different, because it feels personal, and is marked by commitment and love. Secular public services have on the other hand become generic, bureaucratic, and subject to transitory funding, which makes them feel both impersonal and unreliable. Social Liturgy, on the other hand, is about ‘persistence, relationality and localised engagement.’

And nowhere is this more beautifully expressed than in the work you do as a community to support the Euston Foodbank; and by all of you who volunteer here to keep the church open, and to welcome people into the events that are run from this place. And we know it’s personally costly, because the churches have always been magnets for God’ broken people, particularly so in this complicated area of London. Many of you will be having to dig deep to keep ‘social liturgy’ at the fore when you‘re being treated badly by those you’re trying to help.

So what could help strengthen us for the challenges of delivering our social liturgy? We need to develop our character so we’re ready for anything, which is hard, because it’s about developing a whole range of virtues. Many virtues might not see frequent use, but they all need to be supple. There’s a famously devastating example of the importance of this. In the 1960s, the psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to understand why, in the context of the Holocaust, so many people had behaved so very badly. The Milgram experiments involved a set of volunteers teaching word pairs to actors in an adjacent room, who they thought were fellow volunteers. If the ‘pupil’ got an answer wrong, the ‘teacher’ had to administer an electric shock, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. The actors were issued with tape-recordings of screams and pleading, and encouraged to bang on the wall and protest as the shocks increased, then finally to fall silent. Many of the teachers did respond to these protests, and questioned the purpose of the experiment, but most continued, after being told firmly to go on. Beforehand, Milgram predicted that just over 1% of the ‘teachers’ would progress the experiments beyond a very strong shock. In fact, 65% of them gave the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock.

These results seem to show quite graphically our capacity for cruelty. But the American philosopher Robert Solomon argues that what the experiments really showed, was how hard it is in practice to prioritize warring virtues, particularly if one is more supple than the other. He saw it not as a lack of character in the ‘teachers’, rather as a conflict between virtues. In the Milgram experiments, the war was between obedience to authority, and human compassion. In daily life, there are usually more opportunities to practise obedience to authority than there are to practise compassion, so this virtue is comparatively flabby. In St Pancras, when someone distressed comes in and shouts at you, you’re busing weighing up the virtue of compassion with the virtue of self-preservation; when someone is pulling a fast one about foodbank vouchers, you’re weighing up compassion again, against the virtue of truthfulness.

Developing character is just like acquiring any other kind of skill, which means that we need to practise: we need to practise our underused virtues. For example, many people practise moderation and thrift by mending, re-using and recycling their existing possessions. Which virtues do you wish you had in spades, and what could you do to practise them more? Let’s all try, because even if we don’t know God’s destiny for us, or are a bit hazy about the details, a stronger character would help us all to live and work to God’s praise and glory, as a living sacrifice, as we go out to be salt and light in the world.


On pruning

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Sermon preached at St Michael and All Saints, Sunday 6 May 2018

May is Mary’s month; but it’s also exam month. Do you remember the annual tyranny of cramming, and past papers, and exam halls? It’s still one of the most common anxiety dreams, I gather, turning over an exam paper and having nothing to write.

In the Ignatian tradition they love exams: daily exams. The Daily Examen is a meditation that at its heart includes a review of the day just passed, to identify times when you grew closer to God, and times you drew further away. The examen concludes with a forward look, at how tomorrow you might collaborate more effectively with God’s plan for you.

As we heard in our Gospel today: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ I wonder how often you ponder God’s plan for you, and assess your current state of fruitfulness?

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For the sake of honour

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Honour is one of those words that gets bandied about rather a lot. Sometimes it’s used just as a label, as in the Honours of Scotland; ‘it wasn’t me, Your Honour’; and ‘she gave him a gong in the Honours’. We also talk about ‘honour’ killings, as well as Honorary degrees. But what does it mean when we say things like: ‘I’m honoured to meet you;’ ‘I promise on my honour;’ or even ‘wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her?’ These usages seems to invoke a sense of respect and virtue, something that is more about an orientation or a behaviour.

Honour is one of those old-fashioned words, like manners. But when we use it of someone, we refer to that rather rare and durable characteristic of their being reliably moral. We think people are honourable if they do the right thing. We tend to notice it all the more if it proves costly: our mental picture is probably of a tweedy and stoic English gent standing on a lonely pier, waving goodbye to his true love because she deserves better. So is honour as outdated as curtsying to cakes, and should we have none of it? On the contrary, we need honour more than ever, and we need to start teaching it to our children again. Read More

Koomi of Smale

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The fiasco of St Sepulchre’s closing its doors to the musicians for whom the church is named has finally woken the public up to what is going on within the Church of England. If your measure of success is the sheer volume of worshippers you can attract, then of course you will prefer to prioritise the accommodation of the faithful rather than lend your buildings to those who are of more dubious and less manifest faith. Read More

Whitsun, Adlestrop and Ozymandias: the Gaia challenge

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Sermon for Whitsun preached at St Michael and All Saints, Sunday 4 June 2017

Today I‘m in a poetic mood. I blame it on Whitsun. Did you do Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings at school?

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone….

Which puts me in mind of train journeys:

Yes. I remember Adlestrop
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June…

And Adlestrop reminds me of another fabulous name to conjour with, Ozymandias. Picture the scene. A desert. A broken statue. A notice:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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Joy and Prosperity

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Paper given at the University of Aberdeen, 11 May 2017 

Luke 18:22-3 ‘Jesus said, “You still lack one thing: Sell everything you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” But when the rich young man heard this, he became very sad, because he was extremely wealthy.’

The hypothesis of this Joy and Prosperity event is that Christians have traditionally driven a wedge between them. A bit like the rich young man, there has been a feeling that you can’t have both joy and prosperity: blessed are the poor. Today we are testing that assumption, and my contribution is to look at the question through the lens of the axioms of classical economic thought. Read More

Diogenes Small, RIP

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I discovered how easy it is to get a book dedicated to you when I was about 13. All you have to do is ​gather your sisters, and gang up on ​his best mate at ​your grandfather’s funeral. And hey presto, The Secret of Annex 3, by Colin Dexter, for Elizabeth, Anna and Eve. Read More

Sermon on vocation

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Sermon preached at St Michael and All Saints, Edinburgh, 22 January 2017

I wonder if you know that I went to Finishing School? Lucie Clayton College, to be precise. Joanna Lumley went there in the 60s. When I attended in the 90s, they still had their model of a car, so one could practice getting in and out of it without showing one’s knickers. Just the passenger seat, mind: ladies don’t drive. I learned how to sit for a ‘girls in pearls’ photo, how to glide down a staircase, and how to say No to men: “I’d really rather not.” Read More